Ricky Graham praises Lower Maze players for remarkable turnaround
Ricky Graham has shirked all praise and plaudits in favour of his players and staff when it comes to the dramatic turnaround in his Lower Maze team over the eight months he has been with the club.
The former Downshire YM manager, who also assisted at Dromara Village, Dunmurry Rec and Annagh United, has an uncanny knack of reversing the fortunes of struggling clubs, but on this occasion, he stresses it is all purely down to the team itself.
To describe the club’s second half of last season as an escape act is to do it a disservice. Facing the very real prospect of relegation from Intermediate A with three points from 11 games, chairman Alan McDonald was charged the responsibility of replacing outgoing manager Gerry Kerr, and turned immediately to Graham, who had just left Annagh after a short stint as assistant to old friend David Johnstone.
However, it wasn’t instantly an easy decision for Graham, as the manager himself now admits.
“When I got the first call from Al, I just wasn’t interested,” he said. “It hadn’t really worked out for us at Annagh and I wanted a break from football.
“He rang me again a couple of days later, and didn’t hide anything from me. He told me exactly what the situation was, and how many points they had.
“I told him I’d do it. As a manager, how could anyone resist a challenge like that?”
The truth is, there are plenty of men who could do without the hassle or additional pressure of a managerial role where the odds are stacked heavily against them from the start.
But this is a manager who took over Dromara Village with two players less than a fortnight before the new season back in 2004.
The greater the challenge, the greater the interest. However, in this case, any concerns Graham had about what he had walked into were washed away within a few days.
He explained: “I came out of the first training session at Maghaberry on the Monday and then at Hillsborough on the Thursday asking myself why Lower Maze were in such a position.
“I could see the talent in the squad and I felt we could pick up the points we needed.”
In the end, it was largely academic, as no teams were relegated, due to the folding of Blackers Mill and the addition of a 13th team into the division.
Nevertheless, they did manage to avoid the bottom two by goal difference, thanks to a 19-point haul in those last 11 games. Even more impressively, their only three defeats in that period came against the eventual top three of Dollingstown, Tandragee Rovers and Camlough Rovers.
The fact that this was achieved without bringing in any new players was more commendable again.
Yet the Lower Maze gaffer insisted: “I didn’t turn it around… they turned it around. I realised their potential and believed in them — it was then a case of transferring that belief to them.
“The players put their nose to the grindstone — there was nothing more I could ask of them. When I took over, they had lost a lot of games, but quite a lot were only by the odd goal. Now they are conceding an average of less than a goal a game.
“There are a lot of people whose names might not make the paper every week, like my coach Arron McKeague and the second team manager Tony Portis, but they are vital to the progress of this club.
“Lower Maze have six youth teams from Under-9 to Under-17, and their promotion of youth is their investment in the future.”
With summer arrivals Chris Abbot, Robbie Kirkwood, Thomas Neil and John Banks all making a significant impact already, and several more signings potentially on the way soon, it’s no wonder that everyone’s smiling at this ambitious club on the up.